What’s with the high fat / low carb diet for athletes?

You may or may not have heard about the recent chatter about athletes adopting a low carb, high fat (LCHF) diet to reap such benefits such as weight loss, quicker recovery and increased energy levels.

This way of eating throws everything on it’s head and the  traditional theory that carbohydrates are an essential fuel source for athletes. There has been mixed reactions from dieticians and doctors but it’s the athletes that are the real supporters, with many rethinking the way they eat.

Cricketer Shane Watson was on ABC’s catalyst last week touting it’s health benefits, while sporting a smaller frame. The LCHF diet basically means foods such as bread, cereals, pasta, potatoes, rice, sugar and processed foods are off the list.

A typical breakfast is scrambled eggs, bacon and avocado, while lunch and dinner consists of a protein (chicken, fish, red meat) with the fat left on, salad and vegetables

high fat low carb diet

Professor Tim Noakes stated on Catayst

“What this diet does is it’s high in fat and protein and that satiates your brain and reduces your hunger. That is the key to this whole process because if you can reduce your hunger, your calorie consumption goes down.”

He says in explosive events when you need a fast fuel source, then carbs will help. But for endurance athletes, you can last just as long by burning fat for fuel.

“Once the event lasts two or three hours, I don’t see any advantage to carbohydrates, and then increasingly you’ll burn fat. The more fat you eat in your diet, the more adapted you are. You can burn an enormous amount of fat if you’re an elite athlete and easily cover really good performance running very fast, but you have to become fat-adapted. The LCHF diet means players must avoid foods such as bread, cereals, pasta, potatoes, rice, sugar and processed foods”.

Other advocates of the diet said:

Dr Steve Phinney
“For athletes attempting to do prolonged endurance performance, if their body can be trained to use that fat as their predominant fuel, that fuel tank is more than ten times as big as the carbohydrate tank. That’s why we see the ultra-endurance athletes not just winning races but setting records on low-carbohydrate diets.”

Associate Professor Tim Crowe
“Endurance wise, it actually makes sense to be using fat for your fuel tank, which is good for many hours, but when you need that high-power output to sprint to the finish line or to ride up the hill, as an athlete you actually fall behind, because that’s when your body needs carbohydrates for maximum energy output and you don’t get that.”

Doctors that promote high fat, low carb eating emphasise that it’s important to distinguish between good and bad fats. Good fats are saturated and mono-unsaturated and contained in meat/fish and dairy, nuts, and foods such as avocados . Bad fats are vegetable oils and margarines.

Personally, I have gone through trials and tribulations with my way of eating over the years.  Never have I ever had a bad diet and been very health conscious but found that carbohydrates in large proportions have made me feel sluggish and puffy. I do prefer to eat a gluten free, dairy free, low in added sugar diet to feel my optimum and at race weight but also am flexible in circumstances such as travelling, and celebrations. Every athlete is different and may tolerate carbs better than others.

My prerace meal for as long as I can remember was a thai basil and ginger chicken without a base of rice so I was sleeping well the night before and bounding with energy the next morning. Basically I wasn’t changing anything that I didn’t usually eat for dinner (salad or veges with meat).

How does this all relate to the average punter that isn’t training at an elite level but wants a sustainable way of keeping their weight in check?

We are eating huge amounts of carbohydrates compared to our parents or our grandparents generation who used to have full cream milk, fat, butter and eggs. It seems everything has been replaced with sugar filled carbohydrates, which is showing as the cause of the epidemic of obesity, highlighting carbs (low fat/high sugar) rather than excessive fat.

So this news is helpful in the fact that as a sportsperson everything is multiplied by 100, we are pushing our bodies to the extremes and are after the edge. As someone who is interested in their health then perhaps take a leaf out of this book and adapt a few small changes to your diet, and really begin to think about the constant carbs that are entering your body to maintain the raised insulin levels it is so very used to.  The main message in this all is to have a diet that is free of processed foods and should revolve around wholefoods.

So, what do you think about it all? Is it just another fad or here to stay?

main page pic via racing weight cookbook

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